by Renee Mill, Clinical Psychologist
Originally published in Sydney Child, May 2006
Two months ago Belinda and Mike Smith* consulted with me about their son Peter. They were concerned about Peter as he had complained to them more than once that he had been bullied at school. After the second complaint, Mike had contacted the school to voice his concern. The school's response infuriated Mike as he felt that the headmaster was unhelpful and even unsympathetic to his cause. Mike's knee jerk reaction was to pull his son out of the school and find a more protective environment for Peter. Belinda was slightly calmer and persuaded her husband to consult a professional first, before doing anything rash, and that is how they landed in my office.
Mike immediately began talking about how bad his son's school is and wanted my opinion about changing schools. "Whoa," I said. "Let us first work out what is happening and then you can make an informed decision. We need to clarify: Is your child actually being bullied?"
Parents hate it when I ask that because they suspect that I am accusing their son of lying or overreacting. Heaven forefend. I just know that the word "bully" or "bullying" is bandied about as an everyday term, when in fact it has a specific meaning.
I explained to the Smiths that in order for behaviour to be classified as bullying behaviour, three factors need to be in place. These factors apply equally to boys and girls.
The first factor to look out for is whether or not there is an imbalance of power. I wanted to know if Peter had suffered at the hands of a gang, or an older boy or even a stronger boy. Mike said no, to his knowledge Peter had been teased by a mate, a boy similar to Peter in most ways. I was relieved to hear that because when power is equal Peter need not see himself as a helpless victim needing outside assistance. Rather, he and his parents can view him as an adequate child in a peer situation who can look after himself in his world.
I recommended that Peter learn to be more assertive. An easy way of doing it would be for Mike to role play with Peter where Peter is being teased and he stands up to the comment with a witty retort. Learning a skill is proactive; being a victim is reactive and waiting to be rescued. Being proactive is so much more empowering in life.
The second factor I look out for is the frequency of the "bullying" behaviour. I asked Mike and Belinda how often Peter had been teased and they thought that it had happened two or three times. My next question was how close together the incidents had occurred and it seems that they had occurred once at a school camp and then again several weeks later.
Again I was relieved. For behaviour to be labelled bullying it needs to occur at least twice in close succession or repeatedly for several weeks. Belinda did not like this at all. She attacked me shouting "Why are you protecting the bullies? My son has been hurt and you are implying that what happened to him is not serious." Very gently I had to explain to Belinda (and a concurring Mike) that whle being teased is unpleasant and unkind; it does not have to be seen in a catastrophic way. To my knowledge, no child ever goes through school without being teased. Treading carefully, I asked Mike if Peter had ever teased another child. I wondered aloud if Peter had ever excluded a friend in a game. Mike grudgingly conceded the possibility. Belinda suddenly became animated with insight and said that she had noticed that Peter's friendships seemed to fluctuate and that sometimes he would refuse to include someone in a game, even if she insisted.
That gave me the ammunition I needed. I could now explain that children's friendships are fluid. This week Peter may want to spend all his time with Jarred but next week he will want John. In rejecting John, Peter may say something mean but his meanness is a passing, irregular occurrence and should be seen as part of the social dynamics of the group. I stressed to the Smiths that I am not excusing the bad behaviour but that is what it is, bad behaviour not bullying behaviour.
Understanding that meanness between children will occur at times immediately normalised the situation for the Smiths. No longer was Peter a social outcast but a boy in a group who needed to learn how to navigate social dynamics. I stressed the importance of Mike and Belinda being calm about group dynamics. The view that "these things happen, it is not unusual or pathological so let's get on with the business of solving it" will be most helpful for Peter's emotional development. Sometimes just explaining to Peter that friendships at school can fluctuate, is all he will need to get through the night.
The third factor that I investigate is whether or not the perpetrator of the "bullying" behaviour is deliberately targeting the "victim". I wanted to know if the Smiths believed that the unkind behaviour was meant for Peter specifically or that the perpetrator simply behaved badly. They were unsure but I felt that since each bullying situation had been perpetrated by different boys it was unlikely to be personal.
I explained that in every class there will be a child who has a big mouth, or has poor social skills or is self-centred. He behaves badly because he behaves badly; your son is not even on his radar. Letting your child feel that he is a target when in fact he is merely sharing space with a big mouth, will only increase his unhappiness.
Rather, educate your child about different behaviours (even ugly ones) and teach him to live among different types peaceably. What I mean is that your son needs to know is that there are people of all types who will come into his orbit and he will not be able to control their behaviour. What he can control is his own response. For instance he can ignore the negative language as opposed to taking it to heart. Also, he can focus on the positive attributes of the loud mouth instead of focusing on the negative attributes.
After I had gone through these criteria with the parents, it became clear that their son was struggling with class dynamics as opposed to being bullied. They suddenly felt empowered. They no longer viewed their son as a helpless victim who needed external support and protection from the school. Solutions were in sight and a gradual educational program was set in motion which would teach their son more resilience, conflict management and to see each situation in perspective.
It is not in the scope of this article to cover various techniques of building resilience, assertiveness or the ability to manage conflict. Also, as in each case a different skill may be needed by individual children, there is no blanket formula.
In addition, I must stress that I am not minimizing the frequency of bullying or its harmful effects. When behaviour meets the above criteria, protection from the bullying behaviours must take place.
However, in those situations where it is not bullying per se, other methodologies are more appropriate. In such cases, it is within a parent's ability to guide their child in peer dynamics. Skills can be taught to the child by the parents and/or a counsellor that will assist the child for life.
Jumping at the bullying label tends to stress parents and child further. However, when one talks about handling conflict, building resilience and improving social skills, everyone feels infinitely more empowered to resolve the negative situation. Good luck!
*not their real names